At the end of each liturgical year, it is traditional to focus in on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven. Unfortunately, this is no longer considered “popular” and so has often been left by the wayside. Unwilling to bend to the ways of the world, however, we as Christians must keep up with such a venerable tradition, for it is part of what makes saints out of us. For if we go through life with the end (in all senses of that word) in mind, it won’t surprise us when it comes. In fact, we will be able to enter into it fully, as Christians, with the hope of eternal bliss with God forever.
As such, these next few weeks will be dedicated to each of these Last Things. This week, we will begin with the happy topic of Death. Let me begin very bluntly, each of us is going to die. No one of us can escape this, for we are all sinners, and as St. Paul says, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). By our sin, we deserve to die rather than to live on in God’s grace.
But thanks be to God, that is not the end of the story! For Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, Himself died that we might not. To die as a Christian, then, is to enter into the very Death of Christ—into the very act by which He destroyed Death itself. This is why St. Paul could elsewhere be so utterly joyful about Death, because he knew it would bring him closer to Christ: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Ph. 1:21, 23). “The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him” (2 Tim. 2:11).
Because of both the inevitability of Death, as well as the possibility of entering into it in a holy way, the Tradition has also given us helpful and even necessary steps to prepare ourselves for our earthly end. First, we ought not to run from it as so many do through excessive care of the body or overreliance on technology. Death has become part of our salvation, and so, when it comes, it is to be embraced as something leading to Christ when He decides it is our time, and not something to be avoided at all costs. Second, we must be mindful of the reality of Death (this is called memento mori), for if Death is constantly on our mind, we will live well. This may mean “little deaths” or sacrifices each day. Fulton Sheen put it this way: “The principle reason we fear death is that we didn’t prepare for it…death is a terrible thing for him who dies only when he dies, but it is a beautiful thing for him who dies before he dies.” Third and finally, we must have a regular prayer life, which includes regular confession. We do not know the hour of our death, and so we must always be prepared for it to come. This first and foremost means having a soul ready to meet God, and regular prayer and frequent confession are the best ways to ensure this. Don’t rely on a deathbed conversion if you weren’t willing to convert daily! God is merciful, yes, but we ought not to tempt Him. If we don’t seek Him throughout life, we may not seek Him at death. And there is no more tragic thing than to die without sacraments!
And so, be mindful of death, dear friends in Christ. It may just save your life!